Monday 16 September 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Varadkar's no barrel of laughs but he does have measure of joker Johnson'

British prime minister Boris Johnson. Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
British prime minister Boris Johnson. Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Gerard O'Regan

It might all come back to that old "thanking the bus driver" aside. This is a tale which springs from one of the most popular perceptions about the Irish; we are among the friendliest people on the planet.

That may or may not be true - in so far as it's possible to judge such things. But we do seem more publicly engaging, in however superficial a fashion, than certain other populations.

One Irish peculiarity - one that has survived all sorts of social change - is to nod some kind of thank you to a bus driver as we step off public transport at journey's end. He or she is usually a complete stranger and is after all just doing their job. Trivial and all as the practise may be, it might suggest something deeper about the Irish mindset.

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There are, of course, some who could never bring themselves to this kind of verbal intimacy. Somehow or other it's difficult to imagine Leo Varadkar especially acknowledging some unknown driver, unless as part of a pre-planned political set-up.

However, his two predecessors, Enda Kenny and Bertie Ahern, would be much more likely to interact. Enda's joshing jocularity, and Bertie's hail-fellow-well-met instincts, are so ingrained as to last a lifetime.

Leo, according to those who know him, is cut from a different cloth. It's a persona that can be uptight, socially awkward, and not given to small talk. His sense of humour, by Irish standards, is reserved. With our current Taoiseach, the laughability index is low. All in all, it's difficult to see him ever passing the bus-driver affability test.

So what are our nearest neighbours to make of him? Not all that long ago Boris Johnson wondered why he is not called Murphy. We know what he meant. Varadkar's name does indeed suggest he comes from a different hue.

A propensity to sometimes say what he thinks - as distinct from seeking solace in political speak - has been on display over the years. On the backstop he has been unequivocal. There will be absolutely no concession in the stance of the Government if there is a risk to the peace process.

In contrast, Johnson's desire to play Jack the lad is quintessentially Irish. Sometimes he just can't resist the witty one-liner.

Despite the Etonian aura, the temptation to provoke a laugh, and to reduce the serous to the frivolous, has followed him to Downing Street.

As Johnson (pictured left) hit Berlin and Paris this week, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron could be seen quizzically looking at him as he spoke. It was their chance to study the sometimes court jester at close range. As befits diplomatic speak, there were lots of touchy-feely irrelevancies.

But the underlying message was brutal, direct and unyielding. It was spelt out in surprisingly blunt language by the French president. The backstop will remain, and apart from some possible meaningless fudge, it will not be changed. If that means Britain departing the EU in a matter of weeks without a deal, so be it.

Despite some delusional coverage in sections of the cross-channel media, Johnson's brinkmanship was met head on. There will be no give on the EU side if it goes against the wishes of the Irish.

Behind the bluster and faux bonhomie, it was a sobering reality check for the new prime minister. He is hemmed in on all sides by excruciating high-risk choices. A general election as a possible way out is fraught with hazard. All the while he knows the fallout from a no-deal EU exit could wreck his premiership almost before it began.

So for BoJo, there is nothing for it but to finally try to face down Leo. When making his pitch, he will have plenty of briefings to help him get the measure of the guy opposite. But they will not tell of a Taoiseach who has no desire to be hail-fellow-well-met with unknown bus drivers.

Such a trait is of the utmost insignificance for sure. But it's an insight into cold indifference on Varadkar's part, to either flatter or please if it's not in his interests to do so.

Irish Independent

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